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Sonali Kolhatkar

Yes, There Is Anti-Black Racism Among Asians

State Sen. Wendell Gilliard, Gov. Nikki Haley and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott attend a prayer vigil for the victims of the mass shooting in Charleston, S.C. (Grace Beahm / The Post and Courier via AP)
Sonali Kolhatkar
Columnist
Sonali Kolhatkar is a columnist for Truthdig. She also is the founder, host and producer of "Rising Up With Sonali," a radio and television show that airs on Pacifica stations KPFK and KPFA and will begin…
Sonali Kolhatkar

The perpetrator of the Charleston terror attack, Dylann Roof, wrote on his website about Asians: “They are by nature very racist and could be great allies of the White race.”

Many Asians took umbrage at this characterization. And certainly it is racist to say that an entire ethnic group is “racist by nature.” But Asians cannot deny that anti-black racism exists within our communities.

It is tempting to think that all people of color fall into a single group framed by our non-whiteness. But there is a hierarchy (even if we don’t like to admit it), and blacks are often at the bottom. That is exactly why African-American activists have rightly insisted on the slogan “Black Lives Matter” rather than “All Lives Matter.” We live in a society where African-Americans are the group most negatively affected by police violence, educational disparities, employment discrimination and so on. The United States has never properly dealt with the ugly legacy of slavery, and social indicators for African-Americans are a reflection of national historical amnesia.

Asians, on the other hand, increasingly occupy spaces of power alongside whites. A recent Pew Research paper concluded that Asian-Americans are “the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the U.S. … and are more satisfied than the general public with their lives, finances and the direction of the country.”

As Julie Carrie Wong wrote in Al Jazeera last year, “Being Asian and being white are becoming less and less mutually exclusive and the boundary between them … increasingly porous.”

South Carolina’s Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, an Indian-American, is a good example of how some Asian-Americans have attempted to join the Caucasian club. On a voter registration form, Haley once identified herself as white.

She was born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa and converted to Christianity from Sikhism. Before she was against flying the Confederate flag outside the South Carolina State House, she was for it. The New York Times speculated that her about-face might have been because “[t]he flag would inevitably complicate [Haley’s] selection as a cabinet member or even vice-presidential nominee, if she wanted either.”

There are many other prominent Asian-Americans who have sided with power and identified with conservative whites. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, also a Republican and also an Indian-American who converted to Christianity, has been the epitome of a conservative in his anti-Islam rhetoric and in his stands against gay marriage and many other issues. The right-wing racist writer Dinesh D’Souza, who remains fixated upon Barack Obama, came under fire this year for referring to the president as “a boy… from the ghetto” (Heer Jeet, writing in The New Republic, crafted a nuanced portrait of D’Souza and how his anti-black racism is rooted in South Asian culture.) John Yoo, a Korean-American who served as a deputy assistant attorney general under President George W. Bush, famously wrote the “torture memos” that provided legal justification for the CIA’s post-9/11 torture of Muslim detainees. Yale Law School professor Amy Chua’s book “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America,” made a highly flawed and racist case for why some cultural groups are more high-achieving than others.

One of the most appalling recent instances illustrating anti-black racism by an Asian was the little-covered story of Vijay Chokalingam, who boasted that he got into medical school by taking advantage of affirmative action policies favoring African-Americans. Chokalingam, who is actress Mindi Kaling’s brother, claims he was less likely to get in to his program of choice as an Indian-American with mediocre grades. So he shaved his head, took the name of Jojo and got accepted as a black student. Demonstrating his astounding ignorance, he referred to affirmative action as “racism,” saying it was “not the answer” and that it “promotes negative stereotypes about the competency of minority Americans by making it seem like they need special treatment.”

We Asians do have a racism problem. I have seen it in my own family. South Asians in particular, whose complexions cluster closer to the dark-chocolate-brown end of the spectrum, harbor a deep sense of self-loathing most clearly illustrated by matrimonial advertisements that overwhelmingly express a desire for light-skinned spouses. The 1991 film “Mississippi Masala,” starring Denzel Washington, as well as the 1993 film “Bhaji on the Beach”, explored themes of anti-black racism in Indian diasporic communities and the pressure faced by Indian women who had relationships with black men.

I have spoken to African-American friends who have traveled to India and other Asian countries and experienced blatant racism that rivals the kind they encounter in the United States. A study of racial tolerance around the world concluded that India was one of the least tolerant in the world and that Asian countries like Indonesia, the Philippines, China, Kyrgyzstan and South Korea also suffered from racist attitudes.

Liz Lin addressed the complicated relationship that Asian-Americans have with race in “Why Asian Americans Might Not Talk About Ferguson.” In it, she raised the crucial point that Asians “don’t fit into the black and white binary that usually frames conversations about race in this country. Just as Asian store owners in Los Angeles were accused of racism and suffered serious damage to their stores during the 1992 riots, there were fears of a similar dynamic playing out in Ferguson last year. When a Chinese-American New York police officer, Peter Liang, was charged in the shooting death of an African-American man, Akai Gurley, members of the Asian community protested, and one person told The New York Times that Liang’s arrest “is a vicious attack on the family, and this is a vicious attack on the Chinese community.”Writer Aura Bogado has has explored the question of anti-black racism among Latinos. Similarly, Asians must confront and address our own bigotry. In fact, Bogado cites an instance from her own life that is frighteningly analogous to mine: “In Spanish-speaking households, I’ve heard countless phrases such as, ‘She’s pretty, even if she’s black.'” This mirrors almost word-for-word what I have heard from the mouths of my own family members.

None of this is to absolve white supremacy and its prevalence in the U.S. and in Western European nations. Asians have long suffered the consequences of American racism, from the Chinese Exclusion Act to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II to the racial profiling of South Asians, Muslims and Sikhs after September 11, 2001.

When a 57-year-old Indian man named Sureshbhai Patel was brutally accosted by police in Alabama earlier this year in an assault that left him partially paralyzed, he experienced for a brief and terrifying moment what it might mean to be black in America. A neighbor in the suburban area that he was walking through called the police and described him as “a skinny black guy” who looked “suspicious.”

The good news is that on the issue of police violence aimed at African-Americans, many Asian-Americans do see injustice clearly. A poll of Californians last year by the University of Southern California, Dornsife, and The Los Angeles Times found that Asians sided with African-Americans and Latinos in their perceptions of the unfairness of police targeting. Many Asian activist organizations around the country have drafted letters in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and some have even called for a “model minority mutiny.” Groups like the Bay Area-based #Asians4BlackLives have sprung up across the nation, and the Queer South Asian National Network even offers guidelines for holding workshops on confronting anti-black racism.

In facing our own biases, Asians can begin by admitting that we have a problem with racism in our communities. We must take up the redemptive struggle to claim our rightful place in the fight for racial justice and, in particular, for black lives.

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